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DESTROYING THE ENVIRONMENT

Breeding Like a Rabbit

1788

We have seen how poor leadership and bad decisions can affect socioeconomic climates. Now let’s look at what changes occur when a seemingly good idea alters the ecosystem of an entire continent.

When English sportsman Thomas Austin arrived in Australia to make a new life for himself, he was sorely disappointed. He had spent much of his leisure time back home hunting pheasants, quail, partridges, hares, and—his favorite—rabbits. Much to his dismay, Australia had no rabbits. So, Austin wrote to his nephew back in England and had twenty-four rabbits shipped to his home in Barwon Park in southern Victoria. After all, what harm could twenty-four little rabbits do? There had been earlier attempts to populate Australia with these furry critters. The first fleet brought them over in 1788, but they did not become feral, except in parts of Tasmania.

Other residents in Victoria took up the cause and had rabbits shipped over too. They were most likely enticed by Austin’s own words, “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” They listened well. The trend caught on, but Austin is the man who gets the credit, or rather the blame, for this enterprise.

Only seven years later, a recorded 14,253 rabbits were shot on Austin’s property alone. The population had increased so much that 2 million could be shot or trapped without making the slightest dent in the growth of the species. Hunters prided themselves on being able to shoot 1,200 rabbits in just three and a half hours. This was a record unheard of back in England. It was the fastest growth of any mammal ever to be seen in the world. And yes, this is where the saying “breeding like rabbits” originates.

So, why had this accelerated growth taken place in Australia and not England? This is likely the same question that Austin and the other settlers asked themselves. First of all, the milder winters allowed the rabbits to breed all year round. This, coupled with the fact that much of the area had been converted to farmland, created the ideal conditions for a mass growth in population.

Because of this quick growth, the people of Australia experienced a turnaround in their thinking concerning the rabbits. Around the year 1850, a man was charged £10 for poaching rabbits on the property of a certain John Robertson of Glen Alvie. A few years later, Robertson’s own son spent £5,000 trying to control the population. The effort proved futile. The rabbits caused irreversible damage. Rather than providing a “touch of home,” they became a terrible nuisance.

In less than fifty years, the population stretched all the way to the New South Wales border, through Queensland, and across western Australia and the Northern Territory. This massive spread is still referred to as the “grey blanket.” Ironically, the hunters themselves caused this mass migration. Socially, rabbits tend to stay together. Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not rodents and are more closely related to horses than rats. And in some ways behave as such. Young bucks will leave to establish new territory only at the brink of starvation or a possible collapse in the population. Drastic events such as fires, floods, and other natural disasters may also cause a mass exodus. The hunters did not understand that the mere threat they posed to the growth of the species caused the rabbits to seek less-threatening territory.

Hunters also contributed to the migration by transporting the rabbits from shooting farms to establish them on their own properties for use as sporting game. Farmers became indignant over the practice, but the gentlemen hunters shrugged off the complaints, saying, “Farmers are the universal spoilers of a gentleman’s sport.” So, the continent-wide spread of these destructive creatures would not have taken place had it not been for the English gentleman and his love of hunting.

And why were the farmers so up in arms about something as harmless as rabbits? Well, farmers tend to be very practical and they saw the rabbits for what they really were—pests. They devastated crops and considerably reduced the carrying capacity of the land. They also posed a threat to the native wildlife. And, it became impossible to keep their populations under control. They tore through fences, they climbed fences, and they would often pile up on one side of a fence and act as a ladder for their fellows. Rabbits have even been known to climb trees up to five meters tall. One local Australian official described in his records the attempts at controlling the rabbits as “trying to hold back the tide with a pitchfork.” Since the use of fences proved mostly useless, other methods of pest control were initiated.

Many people hired rabbiters to control populations on their properties. But these bunny bounty hunters had an agenda. If the rabbits were eliminated altogether, rabbiters would be out of a job. So, while seemingly eradicating a property of the pests, rabbiters often employed other tactics, such as releasing rabbits onto lands, freeing pregnant rabbits from traps, and allowing the young ones to simply carry on. In 1888, the New South Wales minister for lands decided to stop subsidizing farmers to pay bounties. Officials passed legislation to try to regulate the rabbit population, but to no avail. The onset of myxomatosis provided some hope at quelling the population. But, as it turns out, the disease that usually proves fatal to rabbits does not discriminate between species. It also proved fatal to some of the native Australian wildlife. The infection remains, but most rabbits today are immune.

Australia has been facing an invasion that has lasted more than 200 years. Her landscape has been devastated, her people have been forced into continuous hours of labor to deal with the problem, and the intruder has completely taken over. Some success has been achieved in limiting the rabbit population using traditional methods, but only at great effort and cost. A small mistake, by a few selfish hunters, has had a high cost in time, money, and environmental damage.

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